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The world wants to know your story

 
 

 
 

The Suicide Circle
November 18 2011

   
 
 

This is the next installment of the Birthright Series that began in 2009 in collaboration with the late Carl Macek.

By Mark Aragona from an original idea by Stan Slavutsky
Edited by Stan Slavutsky

Ethan11309 sank into his chair and tried to ignore the patrons trickling out of the computer rental shop. Waiting always made him antsy. As his hands skittered over the keyboard, he wondered for the hundredth time if the Suicide Circle was just a myth.

It became apparent a year ago that the world was having an epidemic of suicides. People were leaping off twenty-story buildings, overdosing on sleeping pills, driving their cars into rivers, stepping onto an oncoming train's path, throwing themselves onto a freeway. Few left suicide notes, although those that did rambled about their empty and meaningless lives and that ending it seemed to be the best recourse. One blogger noted that it was no different from checking out early from a motel.

It took no time at all for it to catch on. People all over the world were "checking out", usually videoing themselves while they were at it. It became a huge fad, and starved for entertainment, the world watched each feed with morbid fascination.

There was no consensus as to the cause of this lethal diaspora: some said it was the stagnant economy, others blamed it on the lack of quality employment opportunities. The bravest arm-chair psychologists said it has to do with the dissolution of families: as the Department of Husbandry controlled births and the upbringing of children to ensure negative population growth in an overpopulated world, the concept of family has long become an abstract term. The human race has stagnated, they claimed, and thus was bereft of any reason to live.

Ethan11309 was one of those who felt the need to "check out". He had never felt it more strongly than these last few gray months of staring at his bedroom ceiling and emptying bottle after bottle of cheap vodka. He had no family, no one to come home to and speak with, nothing to look forward to but endless days in his tiny office cubicle in the Traffic Management Bureau. Whether he offed himself now or they find him some years later, hunched over his desk and dead from a heart attack, it made little difference to him.

But a stroke of inspiration occured one evening on his way home from work. His neighbor, Jenkins201254, liked to sleep by the window while listening full blast to his radio. Normally Ethan would complain, but today he heard something different as he passed his neighbor's door. Above Jenkins's snoring he could hear the sonorous voice of someone declaiming, speaking the words of some long-forgotten poet: “Do not go gentle into that good night/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

The rest trailed off into a static-filled murmur, but the two lines lingered in the dark corners of Ethan's mind. Do not go gentle into that good night. Yes, Ethan wanted to die. But having seen so many suicide videos on the web, he realized that killing himself alone wouldn't give him what he wanted. He wanted to know what it was like to feel something other than boredom and helplessness, before he departed this world. He wanted to feel. He wanted to rage.

That was the reason why he was waiting here in the wee hours of the morning. He was waiting for the Suicide Circle.

An icon suddenly appeared on the screen. Ethan had seen it before, spray-painted on subway and alley walls—a snake biting its tail. Beneath the icon was a five-second timer. So the rumors were true! If you waited until one in the morning in certain shops...

It seems they weren't going to leave him time to think. Ethan clicked the icon, opening a video chat box. The window showed nothing but darkness, but Ethan felt sure that whoever was on the other end was watching him through their webcam.

A message popped up on chat :

We are the Suicide Circle.

This is really happening, thought Ethan. I'm really doing this.

I'm Ethan11309, he typed. I've been looking for you.

We've been looking for you too, came the quick reply.

What do you mean?

You're not the first to want what we can give.

How does this all work?

We're here to give you what you want:a meaningful life before death takes it all away.

So... you really will kill me?

Right now, you may feel as if you're already dead. Would you seek us otherwise? You know you will die, but you do not know if you’ve really lived. We will give you the live you dreamed of, however short that might be.

Ethan stared at the words for several moments, wondering if it was really possible. The endless days in his cubicle, pretending his work mattered, marched before his eyes.

How do I even know you're real? That this isn't some elaborate hoax by some office clerk with too much time on their hands?

There was a long pause on the other end, and Ethan wondered if he'd insulted them. Then another window appeared, only this time it showed a video. It showed a high angle shot of an intersection. A smiling middle-aged woman with curly blond hair was walking down a street, a shih tzu puppy in her hands. The puppy was yapping and nipping at her ear, and the woman giggled as she stepped off the curb.

She was halfway across when a car came screeching round the corner and blitzed towards her. The woman froze in place, her lips forming a dark red O. Then she was flipping through the air, the puppy leaping from her hands and crashing into the windshield. The car plowed straight out the screen and was gone before the woman's head hit the pavement. The camera held the victim in shot several moments longer as she formed a bloody puddle on the ground. The dog was nowhere to be seen. Then the video went black.

Ethan realized he wasn't breathing. He inhaled and wiped his wet hands on his jeans.

That was our last client. You will not see the video anywhere else but here.

You make them look like accidents?

Most times. We don't share what will happen exactly. It defeats the purpose of the exercise.

When will you do it?

You won't know. We will choose the day and hour within the next 365 days. All we can promise is that your end will be quick and painless.

Ethan still wasn't entirely convinced any of this was real. Nevertheless, he hadn't felt this excited in a long, long time, not since the first time a girl took his arm and led him into a dark, vacant room. He was taking control of his destiny.

Okay, I agree. What do I need to do?

Our only requirement is for you to sign away all material wealth to us upon your death. You'll donate it to Les Enfants Perdu, a charitable organization.

Ethan found he didn't care about anything he owned. After all, who would he pass it on to?

Alright, I'll do it.

Then we have an agreement, Ethan11309. Expect us to contact you very soon to seal our bargain.

But how will you find me? Won't you need my address?

We have our ways. Goodbye for now, Ethan11309, and expect any day to be your last.

The chat box vanished. Ethan wiped the cold sweat from his upper lip. He was suddenly aware of the painful arc of his neck and realized he'd been hunched over the whole time.

A heavy hand fell on his shoulder and he nearly leaped out of skin.

"Closing time, sir," said the attendant. "Sorry."

Ethan looked up at the man's rheumy eyes and tried to bring his heart rate under control. "Yeah, yeah. Got it."

It's going to be like this everyday, he thought as he got up. Every person I meet might be my assassin. I'm never going to be safe again.

He couldn't repress a shudder as he paid and headed out into the night—if it was from fear or excitement or the chilly November air, he couldn’t tell.

***

Though Ethan went back to work as usual, he paid little attention to it. His only reason for staying at his job was to fill in the gaping hole in his credit card bill. Who knows how long the Circle was going to keep him alive? He didn't want to spend his last days living on welfare.

Through it all, he felt an undercurrent of excitement. Each morning he would get up with the palpable feeling that today might just be his last. He refused to do anything that bored him. He went on extended leave and started taking guitar lessons, finding to his joy that he had some talent. He ignored the petty conflicts he saw on the news, chatted and joked with beautiful woman that before were off limits, and spent a large part of his paycheck on rollercoaster rides, dinners in five-star restaurants and exotic vacations to dreamy locales. It was like a haze had been lifted. In his journal he called this new life “After Circle” or AC.

And when he lay his head on his pillow, he felt a great sense of accomplishment that he completed a full day where everything he did seemed significant, and that he may not wake up tomorrow if they got him in his sleep.

“I deserve better than I first thought,” he said to himself one night. Hell, I always did.”

But the next day, he left his apartment to find a woman waiting for him near the mailboxes.

“Ethan11309?” she asked.

Ethan didn’t recognize her. She wore a brown overcoat and large shades, which she removed when she spotted him.

“That's me,” he said warily. “You are?”

“Anya.” She held out a tiny holocard that showed him a 3D picture of a snake biting its tail. “The Circle sent me.”

Ethan felt his gut do somersaults. Was this woman his assassin? No, the Suicide Circle wouldn't be that obvious, would they? He looked her up and down. She was red-haired, fair, and attractive in a waif-like way, but nothing extraordinary.

“What do you want from me?”

“I have a message for you,” she whispered, glancing around. “Maybe we should talk inside?”

With some hesitation, he let her into his apartment, served her a beer, and sat opposite her on the couch. To be safe, he never took his eyes off of her

She gave him a thin smile. “Don't worry, I'm not here to kill you. I'm just like you. A client.”

“We both know you have no way of proving that,” said Ethan. “Why are you here? How did you find me?”

“The Circle gave me instructions to contact you. They set a condition for your contract. An assignment.”

“What? That wasn't part of the bargain!”

“If you agree, they promise to give you a grand death, one that will be seen by millions. But if you don't agree, they won't even release the video of it on the net.”

This isn't fair! Ethan paused to think. Anonymity in death? “What exactly do they want me to do?”

She produced a note from her pocket and what seemed to be a tiny chip. “On February 8, at precisely 9:00 AM, you will use your access to main terminal in the Traffic Control Bureau to cause a traffic jam at the intersection of Fairmart Avenue and Rueger Drive. The commotion must last a minimum of 25 minutes.”

Ethan blinked. “Why do they need me to do that?”

“They didn’t say. That was all the info gave me.” She looked up at him, gaze expressionless. “Is this something you can do?”

“Well…yeah, actually…” Inwardly, Ethan felt relieved at how easy this assignment was. His work at the Bureau gave him access to traffic control. He could make the lights go haywire if he wanted to. The hard part was actually covering his tracks...

“But this is crazy!” he said. “If I ever got caught, they could lock me up for years! How would the Circle keep its contract then?”

Anya merely shrugged. “They told me you were more than capable of handling yourself. In any case, my assignment is just to deliver this message and make sure you follow through if you agree. And here…” she produced another holocard with an address. “Leave a copy of your will at this specific mailbox.”

He frowned at her. “What do you get out of this?”

She raised her chin. “Not that it’s any of your business, but I get the same deal you do: a grand death. Not some cheap amateur video I could’ve done on my own. I signed away my whole life savings to have this chance. If they give a reasonable condition, then I'm fine with it. We have a saying in my country, 'If you dance with the bear, you can't stop when you're tired.'” She nodded to him. “What about you?”

Ethan realized he had little choice. “Fine.” He stood up and took a long swig of his beer. “Guess this makes us partners.” As they shook hands, he couldn't help but notice how fine her hand was, like the bones of a bird.

* * *

Ethan came up with a solution the very next day—a virus he would plant into the main terminal the day before February 8. The program would make the traffic lights stay green, ensuring that there would be chaos for longer than the required 25 minutes.

He spent the two weeks writing the virus. First he stole a copy of the traffic control program from the office to use as a guide. Then he spent the nights writing the code that would sabotage it.

Sabotage. He couldn’t believe he was actually going through with this craziness. Suicide was one thing, but a prank of this magnitude was criminal. Thousands of people used those roads every day.

But each night he sat before his computer and wrote his code. Well, why not? he asked. This gave him a goal, something to pursue for the meantime. Doing everything he wanted was starting to get boring. The truth was, he never felt more alive now that he had something to do.

Heck, maybe the Circle would take care of him before he got caught.

Anya would drop by most nights to check on his progress. She stayed in a motel uptown, but seemed to prefer his company. He started getting used to having her around, to the point that he would buy beer in preparation for her visit. He would sit at his computer with his back to her while she sat on his couch, quizzing him about his plan.

“How will you make sure they can’t trace the program to you?”

“I can set virus to delete the log the moment it runs,” he replied, warming to her conversation. He enjoyed showing off how clever he was.

“What about security cameras?”

“Here’s the sneaky part. I won’t be the one carrying the virus in. I know the guy who goes into the mainframe room and does the backups. I’ll just replace one of the drives he uses with an infected one. The virus will copy itself the moment he plugs it in. I sit in my cubicle while he takes the fall.”

They never planned to talk about themselves, but it was inevitable that they would run out of other topics. He was from Salt Lake. She was originally from Moscow before migrating to Boston. He was into computers. She was a librarian. He was born in September. She wouldn’t tell him her birthday, but she did reveal she was an Aquarian. Not that it meant anything to him.

Once he asked her why she went to the Circle. “I wanted to feel…” she began, then fell silent and stared out through the darkened window. “I just want to feel,” she finally said. “Because I don’t. Everyday’s the same march of minutes that don’t give me any comfort or satisfaction. I’ve traveled so far, know so much, met so many people, but none of it matters. I don’t care about anything, but I care that I don’t care. I don’t want to just sit and wait for the end. I want to be special. I want to feel something.”

Ethan understood her. He didn’t say he did. He just took her hand in his, squeezing it gently. If she noticed this, she gave no indication.

When February the 7th arrived, Ethan had little trouble proceeding with his plan. His co-workers were too busy watching videos on the internet than notice him replacing a blank drive with his own. He watched through the corner of his eye as his co-worker picked up the drives and plodded off to the terminal room. The man was too bleary-eyed to notice anything different with his parcel. No one would notice anything until 9AM tomorrow.

That night, Ethan lay awake thinking. Everything was set but one question lingered: what was this elaborate scheme for. Then it came to him in a single brilliant bolt of awareness: what if it was all for him? The Circle had asked him to have a hand in his own final show, and his reward was an audience of thousands!

Yes, Ethan thought, furious at himself for not figuring it all out. The Circle would expect him to come to the intersection to see his own handiwork. All he needed to do was show up.

Ethan found he was shivering. He leaped out of bed, bathed, shaved, picked out the clothes he would wear. He even put on some cologne. Then he sat in his easy chair to wait for the sun to come up. When it did, he greeted it with a warm smile. Today felt like his birthday.

At 6AM he flew out the door and into the subway. Half an hour later he was having a bagel in a café, a few feet from the intersection of Fairmart and Rueger. Then he remembered: Anya. This day wouldn’t be complete without her around. He called up her cell and was overjoyed to hear her sleepy voice on the other end.

“You’ve got to get to the intersection,” he cried. “I get it now. It’s for all me! You gotta come and see this!”

Bemused, she joined him an hour later, and as the minutes ticked by he found he could not keep his hands still. She took both his hands in hers and together they sat in silence, eyeing the growing stream of cars and listening to the screech and grunt of morning traffic.

At 8:55 AM, on cue, all the lights of the intersection turned green at once. Tires screeched and horns shrieked as cars swerved to avoid each other. Ethan rushed out of the café with Anya in tow, his lips splitting into a grin. Before them was a great crucifix of vehicles, locked end to end as far as they could see. Some passengers were getting out of their cars, yelling and pointing at the lights. It would take the traffic enforcers at least half an hour to get here and sort out this mess.

Ethan checked his watch and saw he had two minutes left. This was it. He turned to Anya to tell her something—goodbye, thanks, wish me luck—but he never got to. She wasn’t paying attention to him: her eyes were fixed at something far above.

Against his will, Ethan followed her gaze up Lancashire Tower, the building across from their café. Some seventy floors above them was a solitary figure in a yellow jumpsuit, standing out like a candle flame against the glass windows. The man edged out on the ledge, gazing down at the streets below them. He raised his arms and jets of red sparks darted from roof of the building and turned the sky into a fountain of colors.

Brilliant, Ethan caught himself thinking, fireworks to get everyone’s attention. Even as he thought this, he felt a sure, sinking feeling that today was not about him after all.

At the sound of the explosions, heads turned up to look and the babble of confused voices fell to a murmur. The man in yellow raised both his arms as if to embrace the sky. Then he jumped.

Ethan felt as much as heard the communal gasp, sensed Anya’s breath going backward. His own tongue swelled in his mouth. Someone nearby shrieked in warning. None of these could distract him from the body plummeting down towards them.

But halfway down, a red parachute blossomed above the jumper. Everyone breathed a collective “oooh”. Some even applauded as the man expertly adjusted his descent to a slow spiral. Many more whipped out their phones to video his act.

Ethan felt his breath escaping. It wasn’t a suicide after all. Probably just some attention-starved stunt artist looking to become an instant celebrity. It didn’t have anything to do with the Circle at all. It had nothing to do with—

Anya’s hand latched onto his arm like a snakebite. The jumper reached across his body, yanked off some straps, and cut himself free of his parachute to fall the last fifty meters into the street.

Ethan’s eyes followed the yellow blur of his body. Reality felt disjointed, turning into snapshots. Screams, both by horns and human voices. A dull wet thud and an explosion of glass. Then the mangled body splayed on the roof of the car like a puppet cut from its strings.

Ethan could not tear his gaze away from the smashed windshield, nor from the red flood streaking down the man's mouth. His eyes couldn't comprehend how someone's limbs or neck could be twisted so far from its form, as if the man had sand for bones.

Around them, people were converging around the body. Some were pushing past Ethan and Anya, streaming towards the bloody cars like ants converging on a dead beetle. Everyone still had their phones out, lenses capturing the entire mess before the parachute came down on everything like a crimson shroud. Was this what death was like? thought Ethan.

Anya had her arms around his chest, face buried in his shirt. She was weeping. Ethan didn’t know why he felt like crying too.

***

The jumper was Rolf12466, billionaire-owner of Lanchashire Tower. The networks were aflame with all the details of his life up to its last moments. He had just signed off a majority of his wealth to several charity organizations and spent most of his time pursuing his new hobby: sky diving.

Ethan watched the news as it unfolded on his computer screen. Even after turning off the monitor, the image of Rolf’s body plunging into the car still played over and over in his mind.

He staggered away from the screen. Anya was curled into a ball on his couch, her face pale and expressionless.

“You alright?” he asked her.

“No,” she replied. “Yes. No. I don’t know.” She gave a hollow laugh. “I don’t know what to think.”

“How do you feel?”

“I…I don’t know. Awful.” She wrung her hands. “Why do I feel like this? That man paid the Circle—I can’t imagine how much—to have his moment. He got what he wanted. So why does it make me feel so dirty to see it?”

He sat beside her, and she linked her fingers with his. “I don’t want to walk back to my motel. I don’t want to be alone. Please?”

He smoothed her hair, touched his forehead to hers. “I don’t want to be alone either.”

They spent that night making passionate love and talking, talking, talking till dawn.

***

It took a week of deliberating and second-guessing for Ethan to finally muster the courage to do what had to be done. Late one night he crept out his apartment and headed for the same rental shop he went to months before. The clock chimed 1 AM, and Ethan clicked on the snake sigil as it appeared onscreen.

We are the Suicide Circle.

His fingers flew on the keyboard. This is Ethan11309. You promised a reward for that stunt I pulled. Well, I know what I want.

Ethan paused to take a deep breath. Now or never. He had made his choice.

I want out. And I want you to do the same for Anya. Call the whole thing off.

He watched the words appear and wished he was as confident as he seemed. His hands felt clammy and slick against the keyboard. But no response appeared on the screen.

Are you getting this? I want to live.

Still nothing. Ethan felt his unease grow as the chat box remained stubbornly dark.

Hello?

Finally, he got a response. But what he saw next turned his blood to ice.

The chat box opened a live stream of a living room: his own. There was Anya, curled up on his couch and reading. She looked up to gaze at the digital clock on the wall: 1:09 AM.

“You son of a bitch!” he shrieked. Before he knew it he was charging out the door, the indignant clerk at the desk a fading afterthought.

He hurled himself through the streets, heedless of the cars screeching as he crossed the intersections. Throughout his run, his mind kept playing horrific visions of what was happening to her. Have they gotten into his apartment? Have they tricked her into opening the door, pretending they were cops? Did they just force their way in to get to her?

He ran on, lips pulled back from his teeth, sweat streaming down his face and back he counted every street they passed.

Finally, finally reached his apartment and lunged up the stairs to his door.

“Anya! ANYA!”

His front door opened a crack just as he pulled out his keycard. The first thing he saw were her delicate fingers curling round the door's edge, then her brown eyes, and he nearly collapsed in relief.

She opened the door fully as he reached for her and fell into her arms, his lips finding hers. “Ethan?” she asked when he finally released her. “What happened to you?”

She hadn’t even finished her question before he ran into his living room. He ransacked his shelf and found the tiny camera hidden beside a bookend. He dropped it onto the carpet and heard a satisfying crunch as he trod on it. He turned to see Anya's shocked expression.

“They've been spying on us all this time!” he cried.

“You mean...the Circle?”

“I contacted them to...to try and call off the whole thing, but instead they...DAMN IT!”

He dropped down onto the couch and she sat down on the coffee table in front of him, heads close and knees nearly touching. “I'm sorry,” he said at last. “I'm sorry, I never told you what I was going to do. I tried to call off our contracts. I don't want to die anymore.”

She goggled at him.

“I didn't tell you because...because I was afraid of what you'd say.” He took her hands in his. “Anya. I want you to be with me. What do you say to living together from now on?”

At first he didn't know what to make of the queer blankness over her face. But then tears began to pool in her eyes, her lips formed a quivering smile. He encircled her in his arms.

“We'll go far away, someplace they can't find us,” he whispered. “What's the remotest village in Russia you can think of?”

She laughed and whispered something unpronouncable. “Then that's where we're going,” he said. “Pack your stuff. We're taking the first flight outta here.”

“You mean...right now?”

“Yeah, before they can catch up with us. I'll buy us tickets. Once we to get to the airport they can't touch us.”

As Anya disappeared into the bedroom, Ethan fished out his phone from his pocket to order his tickets They might still be watching us even now, he thought. There might be other cameras, or spies across the street. He stomped over to the window and looked out, but the windows in the apartment across were all dark and the streets were deserted.

He drew the drapes and finished getting the tickets. He found a flight this morning and picked up one of the last few remaining seats. Well, he thought, even if they know what we’re up to, we can still outrun them if we act fast. We just have to get to the airport. With the security around they can’t work any of their “accidents” there.

Probably.

When he saw Anya again, she was wearing her coat and pulling her stroller behind her. “I’m ready,” she said. “I called us a cab. It’ll be here in ten minutes. You should pack what you can.”

“Great,” he said, kissing her cheek and running into his bedroom. He threw a few clothes into his suitcase, grabbed his laptop and his toothbrush. When he lifted his head Anya was yelling that the cab was there.

His heart drumming in his chest, Ethan hurried to the living room and peered out the window. Sure enough, the cab was waiting for them at the curb with its “HIRED” indicator light on its roof, but now there was something else. A group of four men in trench coats stood in front of the shop across the street, watching the cab.

“We can't go this way,” he said to Anya. “Let's go out back.”

They slipped out the bedroom window into the fire escape, made their way down to the alley, and crept past the dumpsters. Ethan poked his head out to survey the area and found the street deserted .

Hand-in-hand, they started to jog uptown when Anya tugged at his sleeve, wide eyes looking behind them. A trench-coated man had turned the corner of the adjoining street and spotted them. He gave a low whistle, motioning with his arm. Ethan grabbed Anya's elbow and they broke into a run.

The traffic light up ahead stared at them with a red cyclopean eye, and a car screeched to a halt at the corner. More men spilled out, staring at them. Ethan turned and saw that others joined the lone pursuer behind. 'They're trying to hem us in,' he realized.

He tugged at Anya's arm, pulling her towards another alley across the street, dropping their bags in their rush. Ethan plunged headlong into darkness, one arm gripping Anya and the other thrown out to ward off anything in their way. The stench of rot and urine filled his nose and his shoes slipped on the wet pavement. He could feel his legs starting to cramp and ignored the pain. He could hear Anya's loud breathing, and far behind, the low rumble of many footsteps.

They turned the corner and came face to face with a barred gate. Ethan's heart dropped to gut, but Anya pointed at a side door. Ethan gripped the handle and was relieved to find it unlocked, spilling light into the alley. He pushed Anya in before following.

The scent of beef stir-fry filled his lungs, and Chinese cooks froze and glared at them through the steam. Ethan and Anya push their way past them without a word. The restaurant had only three patrons who didn't even look up from their bowls.

They were just about to leave the restaurant when the kitchen door burst open and their pursuers spilled in. But this time, the cooks weren't having any of it; they fenced the men in with their arms, screaming in Chinese. Ethan grinned as their pursuers struggled to get past and followed Anya out the front door.

“There!” she cried as they emerged onto the street. She ran to the curb and an empty cab screeched to a stop beside her. She yanked the door open, slipped inside, and waved him in, and Ethan couldn't remember a more beautiful sight than her sitting there, her green eyes too bright, flushed cheeks and hair flowing on her shoulders, her skirt hiked up just enough to reveal her pale knees and a sliver of a thigh. His heart leaped into the cab and his body followed.

“Airport!” they screamed together.

The cab pulled away from the curb, and they watched through the back window as the men emerged from the restaurant, coming to stand on the street like duck pins waiting to be struck down. When he saw their leader's shoulders slump, Ethan knew they'd won.

He held Anya to him as the cab raced into the shimmering night. All around them, nightclubs and bars hummed with music and warm bodies. He thought he could see stars above the glow of city lights.

At that moment it didn't matter to Ethan that they lost their luggage. It didn't matter that they had no clear direction. He still had their tickets and their passsports tucked away and by dawn they would be out of the country. They'd be free to live life as they saw fit. They would be free—

The cab's tires screeched as it turned a hard right, entering a street that sloped downhill. Ethan blinked in confusion. This didn't go to the airport. He was about to complain to the cab when an engine roared ahead of them.

At the bottom of the slope stood the skeleton of a newly erected building, still surrounded by a construction yard. A pair of yellow eyes glared at them from the shadows. Then the truck came into view, signal lights flashing as it reversed its way onto the road. Long dark objects jutted out of its open back. As they sped closer, Ethan saw they were a pile of thin steel rods, the kind used to make pillars. They pointed at the road like black lances.

Beside him, Anya started to scream. Ethan's hand grasped the door handles, but they were securely locked. As if spurred on by his act, the cab hurled itself towards the oncoming truck. Only then did Ethan realized how wrong he was. 'They weren't hemming us in. They were herding us into their trap.'

All thought vanished like smoke as he threw himself over Anya, shielding her with his body. In the last moment as the poles smashed through the windshield, her slim hand reached up to caress his face.

And just as the world vanished behind a dark red screen, Ethan saw the rotten beauty of it all. The Circle had kept their promise. They were giving him his grand death. They had given him something worth living for, then killing him just as he was fighting to protect it. Even as the first pole entered his body, he felt his heart swelling with gratitude and pride. His only wish that he could spare Anya from his fate.

He never had time to wonder if she had betrayed him.

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